From Abdüsselam to Masoud Barzani

From Abdüsselam to Masoud Barzani

American writers in Turkey infamously get their ideas from our taxi drivers, so I make a point of returning the favor when I am in the U.S. Usually, you say the name of your country and the taxi driver tells you what that name currently resonates with in the capitol. This time, upon hearing that I’m from Turkey, the driver asked me right away: “What do you think about the vote?” Without waiting for an answer, he blurted out a second one “why is Israel supporting the Kurdish referendum?” 

First of all, I was relieved not to be questioned about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rising authoritarianism, the state of emergency, and jailed journalists. This time, what was new about Turkey was not something pertaining to itself, but its attitude towards something just beyond its borders: The Sept. 25 independence referendum in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. It made a refreshing change – and it was much easier to talk about than all the Turkey stuff. 

The Turkish Parliament is set to hold an emergency session on Sept. 23, so it might be useful to go over the basics once more. This session – coming right after National Security Council and Council of Ministers meetings - is telling. The government is preparing to get a parliamentary approval for Turkish boots on the ground. It is not clear whether such permission will be put to use, but the government wants to be ready to send a certain signal. 

Why is all this happening? The American invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war on our doorstep taught one thing to us Turks: The erosion of government authority in neighboring countries is something to be avoided at all costs.  The 3 million Syrian refugees trying to make ends meet in Turkey remind us of this lesson. The Kurdish independence referendum put forward by President Barzani is certain to destabilize Iraq further. The question of timing is more important than the content at this time.

A little history is useful here: In 1907, Sheik Abdüsselam Barzani put together a collection of Kurdish tribes under the name of Barzani. According to İsmail Beşikçi, a prominent writer on the Kurdish issue, Sheik Abdüsselam was Masoud’s uncle. That initial group put together seven major demands that are now called the “Dohuk document,” though nothing in that document was related to independence. 

The first demand was about Kurdish becoming the official language of the region. The second was about Kurdish becoming the language of education. The third asked the Ottoman government to appoint Kurdish or Kurdish-speaking officials to the region. The fourth demanded justice for the Kurds. The fifth was a request for the government to take into account that Kurds are of the Shafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, not Hanafi, like the majority of Turks. The sixth asked for taxes to be levied on Kurds in order to follow Islamic principles. The seventh asked for those taxes to be spent on the needs of Kurdistan, starting with roads. 

The reaction from the Ottoman government in Istanbul was harsh. It put up a reward for those who would help catch Abdüsselam, who duly fled to Iran to hide in the house of Sofi Abdullah, a fellow Kurd. However, upon learning about the reward, Sofi Abdullah gave up his friend to Ottoman officials in 1914, which was followed by a show trial in Mosul and Abdüsselam Barzani’s subsequent execution. The Ottoman commander who oversaw the trial and execution was Süleyman Nazif, another fellow Kurd.  

The story of these three Kurds shows the fierce complexity of the issue. It may sometimes seem like we were inevitably bound to end up with our current predicaments, but we weren’t. The Syrian civil war, the end of the Kurdish peace process in Turkey, and various other turning points got us here.

The Middle East needs neither ethnic nationalism nor sectarianism. It needs pluralistic governance, which is about coming out of trenches, not digging deeper trenches. The upcoming KRG independence referendum only deepens our current problems.

Let me go back to the taxi driver’s question: Why is Israel supporting the Kurdish vote, especially in this era of “the enemy of your enemy may also be your enemy.” I’m not exactly sure, but it sounds like they know what they’re doing.