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The Kurds and American Neo-Imperialism


Today the Kurdish people, particularly in Iraq and Iran, find themselves in a critical conjuncture. The American imperial project in the Middle East seems, at least in the short term, to be compatible with the Kurdish national struggle whose strengthening directly undermines the state-classes of Iran and Syria where US seeks further ‘regime-change’. Given the brutality with which these states have treated their Kurdish sub-citizens the temptation to seize this moment and side with the American project has been rather strong not only among the traditional Kurdish nationalist political parties but also among the ordinary Kurdish people. This presents the western and regional secular and radical-progressive forces with an apparent political dilemma: supporting the legitimate nationalist struggle of the Kurdish people seems to come into tension with their wider anti-imperialist strategy. But this is only apparent. In fact as I argue below the ‘Kurdish question’ present a unique geo-political platform for both undermining western neo-imperial projects in the region and strengthening the radical-secular and progressive-emancipatory tendencies which already exist, with varying degree of socio-political strength, in each of the countries where Kurds form a minority, namely Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. To make this clear we need to review the history of Kurdish nationalism briefly.

Numbering over 30 million the Kurds comprise the world’s largest people whose ‘national question’ remains unresolved. Their century-long ethnic persecution, economic discrimination, political oppression and cultural domination still continue. The post First World War re-mapping of the Ottoman ruled Middle East further the further re-division of Kurdistan among four new ‘nation-states’: Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. In a classic case of ‘late-nationalism’ the absence of a developed national economy as an in integrative substructure that could enable an organic process of nation-state building meant that the continued coexistence of the diverse ethnic groups living in these new states were reconfigured on the basis of politico-cultural supremacy of the majority ethnic groups. Depending on specific demographic, political and historical circumstances the new Arab, Turkish and Persian ruling elites’ policies of post-colonial nation-building ranged from ethnic-denial (Syria and Turkey until recently) to grudging acknowledgement accompanied by sever suppression (Iraq) to ethnic-assimilation (Iran). Consequently the Kurds too began to ‘counter-imagine’ their nationhood in terms largely borrowed form their modern overlords. Yet their counter-imagination faced even more intractable problems since unlike the largely sedentary, and to some extent urban, environments of their dominant ethnic groups their own shared language, culture and history could hardly overcome the deep and pervasive communalism of Kurdish tribal-nomadic mode of life.

Soon this traditional socio-economic matrix also came under disintegrative impact of various state-led ‘modernisation’ projects even though Arab, Turkish and Persian ruling cultural supremacists tended to minimally include Kurdistan in their developmental programmes on self-created security grounds. Thus the national plight of the Kurds was now augmented by the socio-economic collateral of uneven internal capitalist development. Over time the two became closely intertwined. It was within this context that a new genre of Kurdish struggle for self-rule emerged and posed challenge to central authority through modern nationalist discourses and mode of political mobilisation. The central governments on their part increasingly made recourse to violent measures. They militarised their Kurdish hinterland and supported and recruited elements of the Kurdish local tribal-chiefs, nobility and feudal-lords and used them against the Kurdish nationalist organisations whose constituency was widening steadily.

These processes therefore generally worked towards the (re)production of comparatively underdeveloped socio-economic conditions in Kurdistan as well as a general state of economic and political insecurity. As a result a violent but indirect ‘primitive accumulation’ was set in motion which forced millions of Kurdish peasants to leave their homes and emigrate to the capital and other major cities seeking a living in the fast growing construction and textile sectors fuelled by oil and tourism. Thus the city with the largest Kurdish population today is therefore Istanbul. As a result of the chronology and configuration of these intertwined processes the economic deprivation (even though it was nation-wide and not affecting the Kurds only) was also tended to be seen by the Kurds as ethnically driven. This further bolstered the Kurdish nationalist cause.

The twentieth century Kurdish nationalist movement was, with the exception of the Iranian Kurdistan, dominated by traditional nationalist forces whose struggle for Kurdish cause essentially represented the attempt by the traditional Kurdish traditional ruling elites and the emerging bourgeoisie to achieve political and economic parity with the ruling elites of the dominant ethnic groups of their respective countries. Of course the anti-democratic and chauvinist nature of the central states they fought imparted a democratic dimension to the Kurdish nationalist parties by default. And it was this dimension which formed the nexus with the nation-wide leftist movements. Yet with the emergence of the indigenous Kurdish socialist and communist forces from early 1970s onwards the shallowness of these democratic pretences became evident. In the 1980s the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) fought a fought a ruthless war against Komala (Kurdistan Organisation of the Communist Party of Iran) to a political stalemate. The resulting balance of power continues to the present day. With the collapse of the Soviet Union the last vestiges of social-democracy were unceremoniously removed from the Kurdish nationalist discourse and an outright authoritarian tribal-nationalism has since become their modus operandi concealed under a liberal discursive veneer.

The Kurds’ attraction to US support is partially driven by the political legacy of the nation-wide secular-nationalist and leftist forces in the countries where they form a minority. Large sections of the left, particularly Stalinist and socialist-populist trends have traditionally shied away from the Kurdish question. They have often tended to either dilute the urgency of the national question or subordinate it to democratic or anti-imperialist struggles. Their secular-nationalist rivals have fared even worse: adopting an ultra-nationalist discourse, often verging on chauvinism, they have often echoed their respective central governments’ accusations of separatism and subservience to foreign powers which were being invariably used as pretexts for the brutal repression of Kurdish nationalist movements.

This disappointing legacy has led many Kurds to view the secular and leftist trends with a national remit of operation with distrust and suspicion. This has directly played into the hands of the reactionary Kurdish nationalist forces which have traditionally based their strategy on the exploitation of the opportunities offered by international and regional geopolitical rivalries rather than the power and agency of the masses of Kurdish people: Mahabad Republic in Iran in 1946, Barzani movement in Iraq in the 1960s and 70s and PKK’s struggle in 1980s and early 1990s are the most important examples of the failure and catastrophic consequences of such a strategy. Yet the lessons were unlearned time and again. Thus unsurprisingly the main Kurdish nationalist parties, almost in all parts of Kurdistan, did not hesitate in jumping on the American bandwagon of Greater Middle Eastern Project. The track-record of KDP and PUK in Iraq is a glaring example of this deep-rooted tendency.

The key point here is that while the Kurdish people’s struggle for citizenship and human rights is not reducible to the narrow and practically reactionary policies of Kurdish nationalist parties they are, thanks to the aforementioned wider socio-historical and political circumstances, have been be able to rally a significant section of the Kurdish people around their myopic political strategy. This western-reliant strategy has unfortunately much wider regional consequences insofar as the secular, progressive, emancipatory and anti-imperialist movement in the region is concerned.

Now what is often missing from the radical western media outlets’ coverage of Kurdish affairs is the fact that there are indeed radical socialist forces in Kurdistan, epseically in the Iranian part, which oppose both the American imperialist project in the region and espouse radical emancipatory social and political programmes which make them a natural ally of the broader regional and international resistance movement to American neo-colonialism.

It is, therefore, the urgent task of western radical-democratic and socialist forces in general and the Arab, Iranian and Turkish leftists in particular to support these radical forces and strengthen their position within the Kurdish society. Crucially they must disarm the reactionary Kurdish nationalism of its most potent political slogan, namely the solution of the Kurdish national question. They must assure the Kurdish people of their unequivocal support for a fundamental, just and permanent solution to their national oppression in the form of the right of self-determination. This will greatly encourage them to disengage from the American strategy in the region and bind their political future in solidarity with, and not isolation from, the broader struggles for democracy and social justice These are increasingly more urgent demands which cannot, The Kurdish masses are increasingly realising, be delivered by American neo-imperialis.

Crucially, secular-progressive forces must engage the Kurdish people directly and clarify the fact that even if the Kurdish tribal-nationalism can somehow overcome its strategic-structural socio-political limitations and bring about some form of Kurdish political autonomy the economic conditions of an overwhelming majority of the Kurdish people will deteriorate much further. For by removing Kurdistan from the wider national economies, of which it is currently a junior and discriminated component, and turning it into geo-political springboards for the US and Israel in their war against Iran and Syria they effectively eliminate any possibility for economic interaction with these countries hence condemning it to further economic hardship. It is important to note that unlike Iraqi Kurdistan where northern oil-fields are potentially a significant source of income (the other parts of Kurdistan have no such fortune) there is hardly a viable economic infrastructure in other parts of Kurdistan. This means that the small and land-locked future Kurdish states will have no option but becoming R&R zone for the occupying western forces surviving mostly out of the insecure geo-political rents its ruling nationalist parties will be obtaining from the US.

But here are strong signs of feasibility and possibility of imposing a retreat on the reactionary Kurdish nationalism and by implication the US strategy in that region. The PUK/KDP-run Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as the Iranian Kurdistan, is currently embroiled in an expanding in intensifying class struggle. Socio-economic issues are increasingly coming to the fore and dominate the political agenda. The people are generally frustrated with the deepening class-divisions, socio-economic inequality, arbitrary rule and wide-spread corruption. Workers and students protests in Arbil, Suleimaniyeh, Halabja and Kalar in Iraqi Kurdistan demonstrate the seriousness of the situation. The left faces a difficult task but also a real opportunity to challenge the Kurdish authoritarian nationalism and deal the American Middle-East strategy a sever blow.

KAMRAN MATIN teaches International Relations at Sussex University, UK, and can be contacted at

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