Kurdistan: are there lessons for Scottish identity?

Kurdistan: are there lessons for Scottish identity?

by Hugh Andrew
article from Monday 4, November, 2013

WELCOME to Kurdistan. Or is it Iraq? I am just back from a fascinating trip to northern Iraq for Kurdistan is open for business and keen on tourism. That our first meeting was filmed with the Minister of Tourism suggests that perhaps they are just at the starting curve on being a tourist destination. And certainly seekers of sun, sea and surf may not be rushing immediately – while the first commodity is in ample supply the other two are more problematic.

Kurdistan is a very strange place. It is clearly operating as a de facto autonomous region, clearly too quite willing to take foreign initiatives and operate quite separately from the south of Iraq where the level of violence has reached the same tragic levels as it did in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War. And yet Iraqi central government enclaves remain within Kurdistan while the city of Kirkuk, though controlled by Peshmerga is still under Iraqi governance pending an endlessly delayed referendum.

Road blocks everywhere give a sense of the potential fragility of normal life. Yet within that the cities are awash with modern building – sadly in the usual uncontrolled near and middle eastern way of hastily thrown up concrete high rise, property prices are at close to London levels as are hotel prices, and you are surrounded by modern cars and busy roads. The level of infrastructure spend is huge. The reason for all this is, of course oil. As one oil executive we met said ‘You simply put a stick in the ground and up it comes’. On the one hand it gives extraordinary wealth and a sense of boom to the whole area, while on the other it means that others watch and monitor carefully. For there are far more Kurds in Turkey and Iran than in Kurdistan – mainly concentrated around Lakes Van and Urmia but nevertheless contiguous with Iraqi Kurdistan.

To the west many of the inhabitants of the Kurdish enclave in Syria are huddled for safety in Kurdistan. To the north Tacip Erdogan, in an effort to buy the Kurdish votes he needs to enable him to alter the Turkish constitution, makes concessions to the Turkish Kurds – though these concessions have proved disappointing. After years of war the Kurds I suspect know that they have to sup with the Turkish government but are well aware that a long spoon may still be required!

To the north east, Iran, the other regional superpower has its own very considerable interests both in the south of Iraq and in Syria. So Kurdistan does not have far for its problems to seek. And of course relations with Iraq to the south are deeply poisoned by Saddam's campaign of genocide that killed over 180,000 Kurds. Two compulsory stops are the memorial to the gas attack at Halabja, the searing and terrible photographs of which will always remain with me, sitting beside in a case the rope that hanged Chemical Ali. In Suleimanye another compulsory stop is the Baath party regional headquarters and torture chambers, now in one of these rather disturbing dichotomies in which the Middle East delights also a carpet and handicraft museum! The hall of glass – one shard for all of the 184,000 who died is a deeply sobering experience.

One comes back to another oil rich country, wanting independence shaken by the depth of sacrifices others have made to acquire even a semblance of statehood. Kurdistan also, however, points out the limitations of the modern nation state, with its relatively homogenous people, its clear boundaries, and its standard narrative history. In a melting pot of peoples and beliefs, one person's state is another person's oppression. The tragedy of the Middle East is that over ninety years the pursuit of that goal has led to acts of genocide and murder on a huge scale and without end.

Abdullah Ocalan, the cerebral imprisoned leader of the PKK has put forward innovative thinking regarding open borders across the Kurdish region, yet with each section retaining the laws of the country of which they are part. There is of course nothing new under the sun and there seems to me considerable resemblance to the Ottoman millet system in which the separate confessional groups of the Empire were allowed to use their own courts and had substantially autonomous jurisdictions. The Empire was for much of its existence a model of tolerance compared to the hardline Catholic fanaticism of powers such as Habsburg Spain.

Of course on returning to Scotland there is no comparison of the nationalism in Scotland, in terms both of persecution and fanaticism, with many of the worlds new ‘nationalisms’ . Scottish nationalism, greatly to its credit, is (for the most part) a tolerant and civic church. However the experience of Kurdistan gives one pause for thought as to why the ‘nation state’ has become the default answer for groups and peoples. For Kurdistan to become a nation state will require years of sweat and toil and quite possible a great deal of blood, and it is to Ocalan's credit that he recognises that other routes may well give the Kurds the freedoms and identity they desire while not threatening those of others.

If independence is the answer what exactly is the question?

 

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