Will Arab Spring Herald Kurdish Century?

By Ofra Bengio

Parallel to the popular revolutions in the Arab states there was a quiet revolution in the Kurdish lands in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In fact the upheavals in the Arab world were a catalyst for things which had been brewing in the Kurdish lands for two decades.

There are similarities and differences between the Arab and the Kurdish revolutions. In the Arab case we are talking about states while in the Kurdish case we are talking about a 30 million-strong non-state entity and community in a state of political flux. In both the Arab and Kurdish cases, breaking of barrier of fear played an important role in the development of the movements, and in both cases popular power has played a crucial role. The new media contributed immensely to the success of both, as well.

Likewise, as in the Arab world, among the Kurds, too, there is a new generation, which may be called the "upright generation," namely a generation that has regained the Kurdish voice, attained visibility in the international arena and is devoted to the Kurdish cause. Certainly the Kurdish awakening was inspired in some parts of Kurdistan by the Arab one, however, practically speaking it took completely different directions.

Indeed, the parallel timing helps to disguise deeper differences between the Arab and Kurdish revolutions.

While the Arab revolutions have challenged state regimes, those of the Kurds are perceived as a challenge to the territorial integrity and national identity of the state. This is true especially for the Kurds in Iraq but it is becoming more and more the case for the Kurds in Syria and to a lesser extent for Turkey and Iran as well.

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The main cause for this development is the bankruptcy of the notion of the nation-state. For the Kurds the nation-state meant the effacing of their identity and their political rights for the greater part of the 20th century, hence the backlash. The weakening of the state versus society as it had occurred in most of the countries of the region also played into the hands of the Kurds.

Another major difference between the Arab and Kurdish cases is that while in the Arab states the revolutions bolstered the Islamic tendencies in society and granted legitimacy to political Islam even in secular states such as Tunisia, in the Kurdish case Islamism has not gained moral and political ground. Instead, the ethno-national tendencies carried the day.

This divergence can be explained by the well known fact that among the Kurds political Islam has never put down deep roots. An illustration of this phenomenon are the results of the democratic elections of July 2009 in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq in which the two Islamist parties won together merely nine out of 111 seats in the parliament.

On another level, while the Arab revolutions brought to the surface cracks and divisions in Arab societies, in the Kurdish case we see an opposite trend, namely greater unity. Thus, if the beginning of the 20th century witnessed the division of the Kurds into four states, after which ties among the different communities were only randomly maintained, the beginning of the 21st century and especially the latest upheavals have brought them closer.

Furthermore, it opened the way for a certain Pan-Kurdism and mitigated somewhat the chronic tendencies to tribalism, internal wars and factionalism. On the whole, while the wars and upheavals in the 20th century brought only catastrophes to the Kurds, the 2003 war and the upheavals in 2011-2012 have opened up new horizons. Similarly, the image of backwardness, passiveness and lethargy that stuck to them for generations has given room to a much more assertive and astute one.

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The writer is a professor at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies. She is the author of the recently published book The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State.

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