The Transformation of Kurdish and Kurdistan Society to ‘Civic Loyalties’



Sign the petition for Iraq's three-region solution December 12, 2007 The Transformation of Kurdish and Kurdistan Society to ‘Civic Loyalties’ - By Karim Hasan Abdullah 


This paper  [1]  readjusts knowledge of Kurdish and Kurdistan society  [2]  by presenting an analytical explanation of ‘transformation’ of Kurdish and Kurdistan society to ‘civic loyalties’. This category of loyalty is a sub-category of ‘patriotism’ to Kurdish sovereignty, to Kurdish nation-state and to civil society in Kurdistan. This transformation to ‘civic loyalties’ is a constructive development of steady social, economic and political progress of Kurdish and Kurdistan society at three interconnected spaces: the local, the regional and the international. How and why this transformation has occurred? 

   Three indicators show ‘cause and effect’, and spatial alteration of this transformation. The first is development of Kurdish ethno-national identity (Natali 2005; Vali 2003) in the twentieth century and the emergence of ‘two party-politics system’ in 1970s (Stansfield 2003). This development moved Kurdistan society away from ‘primordial loyalties’ towards ethnic loyalties and transformed Kurdish National Question to regional Middle East and international spaces. 

   The second is the ‘Anfal Campaign’, the genocide of Kurds by Iraqi regime in 1980s (Human Rights Watch 1993; Middle East Watch 1993; Committee on Foreign Relations 1991, van Bruinessen 1994ab). The genocide of Kurds with emergence of polity-politics and political organization of Kurdish ethnicity solidified ethnic loyalties and broadened the spatial transformation of Kurdistan society to international membership.

   The third indicator is the 1992 election of Kurdish Parliament in Iraqi Kurdistan that led to the establishment of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)  [3]  on principles of multi-party system, democracy and federal relation with Iraqi Central Government (Stansfield 2003; Anderson and Stansfield 2004). The foundation of Kurdistan Regional Government with its representatives around the globe, and its administrative apparatus in place in the last 15 years, the emergence of civil society in Kurdistan are indications of both civic loyalties and formal internationalization of Kurdistan membership in the international community.

   This transformation has been the result of a ‘Kurdish determination’ to pursue ‘the right to life, to liberty, to health, to wealth, to property and to security of Kurdish and Kurdistan society’ in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Morsink 1999) and the right of nations to ‘self-determination’ (Kly and Kly, and Falk 2001). This ‘Kurdish determination’ has opened local, regional and international ‘spaces of expression’, ‘political representation’ and ‘geopolitics’ by rupturing the repressive, peripheralizing, denying and exploiting ‘habitus’ and ‘system’ of the government of Iraq from 1990 to 2003. This determination continues to work internally to transcend and to transform ‘life-world’ and ‘habitus’, ‘system’ and ‘field’ of Kurdish and Kurdistan society. It works externally too, which may help transcend the region to social, economic and political democracy, the rule of law and good governance. 

   This readjustment may help the international community, academics, and the neighbours of the Kurds to address the Kurdish National Question. This works on the principles of ‘love thy neighbour’ and ‘good neighbourly relations’, even though these principles have not been extended to Kurdistan as a nation, but Kurds need to believe and to have faith in extending ‘love’ and ‘friendship’ to their Middle Eastern neighbours. The remaining onus is on the state-system of the Middle East to consider their Kurdish neighbours (Hiro 2003). The United Nations Security Council can play a positive role in the consolidation of Kurdistan membership in the Middle East and the international communities.

1. Loyalties, Transformation and Spatiality

Is knowledge of the transformation of Kurdish and Kurdistan society to modernity possible? Yes, it is possible. Scholars of Kurdish, Mediterranean and European, North African, Arab-Islamic studies have published a diverse quality and a number of academic articles and books about the development of Kurdish and Kurdistan society in the last four decades (Ahmad and Gunter 2005; Anderson and Stansfield 2004; Stansfield 2003; O’Leary, McGarry and Salih 2005; Natali 2001, 2006). This body of literature shows progress and transformation of Kurdish and Kurdistan society through a peaceful legal determination that has unveiled the violation of accurate knowledge of Kurdistan.

   The transformation of Kurdish and Kurdistan society from ‘primordial’ to ‘ethnic’ late eighteenth century to 1970s, and from 1970s to present ‘civic loyalties’. The twentieth century has been the period in which this positive development has taken effect (Natali 2005). These forms of loyalties have specific rights and responsibilities attached to them for both the receiver and the provider. This system of loyalties is grounded in reciprocity, efficiency, and fairness among social, political and economic classes of Kurdish and Kurdistan society. Kurdistan has been depending on these loyalties for survival and development. These loyalties are unwritten customs, conventions and norms which sanction and punish disloyalties or reward loyalties on the basis of efficiency and fairness in Kurdish and Kurdistan society. The practices of these loyalties have influenced the development of politics in Kurdistan, organization of Kurdish and Kurdistan society, economic production at the local, the regional and the international spaces.

1.Primordial Loyalties 

Martin van Bruinessen  [4]  has been the first social and political anthropologist to characterize that Kurdistan society functions on principles of “primordial loyalties” (1992). He has not provided a historical account of the emergence of ‘primordial loyalties’ in Kurdistan. The historical period that he has covered thoroughly begins with the battle of Chaldiran in 1514 between the Ottoman and Persian empires in present-day Northern Kurdistan. The readers of his book may assume that primordial loyalties always have been the social cement that has held Kurdistan society together. His framework deserves a thorough attention, because probably it is one of the most read research works on social and political structures of Kurdistan. 

   His research was conducted during a period in which socialist and class movement were shimmering across developing societies. Research on contradictions between class and ethnic consciousness was fashionable. He conducted research in Kurdistan under juridico-political administration of Iran, Iraq and Turkey in late 1960 and in 1970 for his Ph.D. thesis. This research was published in English in 1992. The detailed study of social and political structures of Kurdistan indicated that two main social and political institutions of Agha and Sheikh have held Kurdistan together internally and externally on principles of “primordial loyalties” (1992: 6) to these two institutions with their economic base in farming and trade.

   ‘Agha’ is a class of nobility and ‘Sheikh’ is a religious title/class. The word Agha is used in Kurdish and in Persian. Sheikh is used in Kurdish and Arabic. Agha is a class of nobility who possess certain economic and political power. There are numerous categories of nobility in Kurdish society such as: Mir, Amir, Bag, and Khan…etc, but Agha is the longest surviving class of nobility in Kurdish society. While in Kurdish, Agha is a nobility title. In Persian, it is synonymous to the English title Mr. Probably its origins date back to the rise of the Sefaui dynasty in fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but the power of Aghas has been declining since late nineteenth century. This rank of nobility in Kurdistan has no connection with east Iranian Aghas and Khans. It is only nominal similarity.

   Sheikh is a religious title in Kurdish, but in Arabic it is also used for elderly men similar to the usage that is reference to ‘wise man’ in Aboriginal culture. In Kurdish society, there are numerous classes of Sheikhly titles; it can be awarded by lineage, by religious rank in the study of religion, and by religiosity. A number of Sheikhs claim lineal connections to an Arab decent and the prophet of Islam; but others do not make such claims because their title have been awarded due to religiosity. 

   van Bruinessen problematizes “primordial loyalties” to Agha-Sheikhly order. His approach is similar to Hamza Alavi’s (1973) problematization of “primordial loyalties” and “structural functionalism” on the account that these frameworks burden farming communities to pursue their objectives and hinder their class consciousness. The shortcomings in his approach are that he begins with these problematizations, but he has not developed them thoroughly; rather by the end of the study he adopts a structural functionalist approach. He does not continue his critical assessment of the ways in which these ‘primordial loyalties’ to the Agha-Sheikhly order in Kurdistan’s social and political structures is similar to Alavi’s 1973 critical study. 

   Alavi’s work is a study of Near Eastern peasant caste societies of India and Pakistan, in which “primordial loyalties” has prevented the peasants to pursue their class interests (1992: 6). Alavi constructs a Marxist social-anthropological framework to criticize structural-functionalism, which according to him harms class interests and debilities the realization of class consciousness. The main concern is ‘peasant lack of class-consciousness’ in Alavi’s approach, and for van Bruinessen a similar concern at the beginning is the main drive of his research, but later he diverts. Alavi does not engage in the question of ‘ethnicity and national movement’ for the right to self-determination, because both Pakistan and Punjab were in post-colonial period (Alavi 1973: 57). 

   van Bruinessen applies an internal class approach to Kurdistan society, which is ethnically near homogenous, and in 1960s and 1970s was engaged in a political movement for self-determination. At the time that he studied Kurdistan’s social and political structure, almost collectively, Kurdish society was in a political movement with external forces for Kurdish right to self-determination and independence. Alavi’s “primordial loyalties” framework is grounded in “social anthropology and Marxism” (Alavi 1973: 23). This framework interprets and analyzes internal class struggle on basis of “a class-in-itself (an economic category) and a class-for-itself (a political group)” (Alavi 1973: 23). It is not a very successful framework for reading Kurdistan society in the process of political movement to obtain the right to self-determination.

   Applying a class-struggle framework which problematizes primordial loyalties in social-class movement to Kurdish National movement on the path of statehood has diverts attention from Kurdish National Question, which was the main concern of Kurdish and Kurdistan society. If he had consistently presented the problematics of class consciousness versus religious and tribal lineage consciousness, his framework would have been more precise; because in Alavi’s work, he finds similar issue to be the problem. There is no thorough account of the ways in which class versus tribal and familial lineage versus ethnic and national interests are different in Kurdistan. It is hard to categorise his work either as structural functionalist or social-class focused, rather it begins with latter and continues with the former approach to the end. Alavi’s farmers were engaged in class struggle with the landowners in post-colonial Pakistani case, he describes “these loyalties are those of kinship, caste, and especially patron-client ties” (Alavi 1973: 23, 35, 57).

   He relates problematized practices of ‘primordial loyalties’ in case of class consciousness, which is critical to ‘structural functionalism’ of social systems to formulate a reading of Kurdistan’s social and political structure engaged in national movement for independence, “In Kurdistan, other, but equally primordial, loyalties profoundly affect politics. Primordial, though these loyalties are; they operate within the context of the most important conflicts of modern world politics” (1992: 6). This explanation falls short of making a clear case for why and how in similar way ‘primordial loyalties’ were problematic for peasant objective interests, in post-colonial Pakistan and Punjab, engaged internal class-struggle could be applied to Kurdistan society mainly engaged in an external conflict for independence in late 1960s and in 1970s. 

   The logic of applying Alavi’s conceptualization of ‘primordial loyalties’ to Kurdistan’s social and political structures had to be established, before acknowledging the importance of studying these loyalties in relation to external factors, both in terms of the way these loyalties influence international politics and the way international politics influence these loyalties. He argues, “The struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union and the conflicts related to oil crises affected Kurdistan more directly than they affected my own country, the Netherlands. It would therefore be naïve to study these primordial loyalties without reference to the external factors that influence and modify them” (van Bruinessen 1992: 6). He does not establish this similarity clearly between the object of Alavi’s and his studies; nonetheless, he moves on and sheds light on the importance of Kurdistan’s geopolitics in respect to conflicts over energy resources and the ways in which these ‘primordial loyalties’ have influenced international politics and international relations.

   These loyalties are pledges of allegiance and submission to family, community leaders, political and tribal leaders. They are grounded in kinship and locality, the customs and traditions that accompany the tribal, locality, and kinship values. There is a sense of attachment to the land, to family and the practices that have shaped and maintained the survival of these societies. Social solidarity in this system of loyalty is mechanical. He divides them into main categories of loyalties to “the family and tribe to the tribal chieftain or Agha, equally strong are religious loyalties, especially those to Sheikhs, the popular mystics or saints who are also leaders of religious brotherhood” (1992: 6).

   He argues, “Kurdish nationalism and the tribal and religious loyalties stand in an ambivalent relation to each other” (1992: 7). This “ambivalent relation” means that ‘tribal-religious’ loyalties have had positive and negative influence for the development of Kurdish society towards civic loyalties. He explains that “the first Kurdish nationalists were from the ranks of the traditional authorities: sheikhs and aghas. It was, in fact precisely, because of these primordial loyalties to these leaders and to the values they embodied that the nationalist movement acquired its mass character” (1992: 7). According to him these loyalties to Agha-Sheikhly order, ‘tribal-religious’ were the cause of “the perpetual conflicts and rivalries between these traditional leaders prevented and still prevent the Kurds from really uniting” (1992: 7). 

   Agha-Shakily order governed and organized social, political and economic relations locally in the Kurdish communities, among inter-communities, and in relation to the regional states, and to the state of Iraq. This order established relations with the three main international powers: the United States, the United Kingdom and France, and Russia have had significant role on the future of Kurdistan since World War I. In general, he points out Kurdish alliances were divided between Russian and Western blocks (van Bruinessen 1992: 6). This division was reshaped with a major shift toward favouring alliance with the Western block since 1970s, more specifically in 1980s and 1990s. 

   This explanation of the way that primordial loyalties have influenced Kurdish and Kurdistan society is sufficient at the latest until 1960s and 1970s, because ethnic loyalties were in the process of formation late nineteenth century; and they were strengthened by 1970s and 1980s; in 1990s civic loyalties emerged. Kurdish society has been continuously on the move to leave primordial kinship and tribal loyalties towards ethnic and civic loyalties. While good progress has been made, the practices of civic loyalties and individualism grounded in civil society remain hindered by both the remnants of ethnic and primordial loyalties. Since mid nineteen century ethnic loyalties have been in the process of formation but were not very successful until 1980s (Natali 2005; Hassanpour 2003; Vali 2003). This development later 1990s led to the emergence of civic loyalties.

   Although there are many ambiguities in van Bruinessen’s work regarding the application of primordial loyalties to Kurdish and Kurdistan society, for example the internal and the external divide have not been explained well, and categories of ‘social class’, ‘gender’, ‘ethnicity’, ‘identity’ and the ‘nation’ needed explanation in relation to Kurdistan’s social and political structure, his work is valuable.

2.Transformation and Spatiality 

Most of the twentieth century has been the period in which primordial loyalties have been transforming to ethnic loyalties, and the spatial practices of loyalties in Kurdistan has been expanding from local to regional spheres. Primordial loyalties were not sustainable current outside Kurdistan for a long time. Systems of loyalties moved forward to ethnic and to civic loyalties and internationalized the Kurdish National Question.

   Although these ‘primordial loyalties’ have been useful for Kurdish survival, they have been burdensome to political unification and social development. They have undermined the emergence of modern types of loyalties like ethnic and civic, which can organize people around broader principles and practices of institutionalized rights and responsibilities. Primordial loyalties have governed Kurdistan social and political structures through the social, political institutions of Agha-Shakily order up until 1960s and 1970s. 

   The main factor which weakened primordial loyalties and established ethnic loyalties was the emergence of ‘two-party system’ in Iraqi Kurdistan. The two-party system in Iraqi Kurdistan opened a new space in the region to the Kurdish National Question. The local space transformed, and regional spaces were opened to ‘two party-politics system’ 1970s to conduct Kurdish National movement. Modern party-politics has been partially successful in Kurdistan. Extremist political parties do not survive long in Kurdistan. The clearest failures are extreme leftist, extreme religious and extreme nationalist political parties.

   The most successful political parties are those that have found grassroots among social, political and economic ‘life-world’ of Kurdistan society. In Iraqi Kurdistan (Southern Kurdistan), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) have been very successful in maintaining their power base the grassroots for more than quarter of a century. In Southern Kurdistan (Iraqi Kurdistan), both KDP and PUK have promised to conduct politics in modern way, and there are good signs that report to their promise since 2003. So there are signs of life in modernization of politics.

   Massud Barzani became the leader of KDP after his father’s death in 1979. He is a member of the Naqshbandi Barzani Sheikhs who are related to Sadati Nahri (van Bruinessen 1992). KDP is generally understood to have been the mother party from which the PUK has split. KDP was founded in the years of Second World War; the history of its foundation is not very clear. Its leadership was not stable until 1960s, when General Mullah Mustafa Barzani became the leader of the party. Mustafa Barzani was a man of great courage and integrity, a military commander of the KDP before he succeeded to the leadership of the organization in early 1950s and 1960s. KDP has contributed to the military wing of Kurdish national movement, in 1960s urban Kurdish intellectuals from different strata and classes joined KDP. The Barzani sheikhs were well known for their generosity prior to their political involvement and taking over the KDP.

   Mark Sykes, in his study of Kurdish tribes of Ottoman Empire briefly mentioned that there was a ‘certain spiritual family’ in Barzan. Probably, he meant the Barzani Sheikhs, but he did not write more about them, probably they were not part of political apparatus at that time (Sykes 1915). The Barzanis have restructured the leadership and the hierarchy of the KDP several times since 1992 elections. While they have made good deal of progress, KDP faces challenges, as because it leads a minority coalition government in Iraqi Kurdistan (Stansfield 2003, for detailed names of the members and the structure of the KDP politburo)  [5] .

   The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is headed by Jalal Talabani. He has a law degree, and he is the current president of Iraq. Talabani is an urban Kurd who has been in Kurdish politics for more than fifty years. He has contributed to modernization of politics and party-politics in Kurdistan. Talabani is a bright politician; he has been a major intellectual designer, an important implementer and the diplomatic voice of the PUK. Ibrahim Ahmad  [6] , a dedicated leader of Kurdish national movement, a lawyer, and a novelist was a co-founder of the PUK. 

   Jalal Talabani enjoys a broad base grassroots support in the Kurdish region, in the rest of Iraq, in Eastern Kurdistan under Iranian control, Northern Kurdistan under Turkish control, and Western Kurdistan under Syrian control. The PUK officially has been founded in 1975; however, the political movement that led to the foundation of PUK has longer historical roots than KDP. The PUK has established power-sharing mechanism for governing the Kurdistan region in a coalition government jointly with KDP and other smaller political parties since 1992. The PUK is an intellectual, a political and a military resource for the development of Kurdish social, political and economic life, and it has made valuable contribution to stability. (Stansfield 2003) presents the names of the members of the PUK politburo  [7] . The PUK has secular principles, and its program respects civil society institutions including religious institutions as a social fabric of Kurdish and Kurdistan society. More importantly PUK has made a significant contribution to Kurdish National movement.

   Party-politics has been led by classes of nobilities; religious orders in coalition with a new middle class of intellectuals who gradually weakened Agha-Sheikhly order, and transformed primordial loyalties to a set of organized social and political discursive practices of ‘Kurdaity’ (Natali 2005) on grounds of ethnic loyalties. The emergence of ‘two party-system’ in Iraqi Kurdistan brought organized social and political discourses and practices which reconstituted Kurdish sufferings around discursive practices of Kurdish identity to promote the Kurdish Right to self-determination. These new sets of discourses did not free Kurdistan’s social and political organizations from practices and discourses of primordial loyalties completely. 

   In fact, the twentieth century, specifically since 1940s primordial and ethnic loyalties coexisted together with ethnic loyalties in broader development until 1980s. However, the literary discourses of ethnic loyalty and ethnic consciousness have been in practice since the sixteen century (Vali 2003; van Bruinessen 2003, Hassanpour 2003). In the later part of the twentieth century the majority of Kurdish population begun to practice Kurdish ethnic loyalties and ethnic consciousness in the form of organized party-politics. 

1.3. Ethnic Loyalties

Ethnic-loyalties have been a mainstream theme in traditional Kurdish academic approach, and they have been mobilized by Kurdish movements for independence. Ethnic-loyalties are practices of ‘ethnic-consciousness’. The emergence of discourses and practices of ethnic consciousness in Kurdistan date back to sixteen and seventeen century literary works of Ahmadi Khan-’s and historical narratives of Sharaf-Khan’s (van Bruinessen 2003; Hassanpour 2003). 

   These practices of ethnic-loyalties have been in process of formation in the twentieth century were matured and solidified. The twentieth century was the period in which Kurdish ethnic-consciousness manifested itself in Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji and General Mula Mustafa Barzani’s unsuccessful movement to find a unified and a sustainable ethnically-conscious front to establish a Kurdish state. Natali  [8]  explains the way in which ethnic-consciousness was in the process of formation since late nineteenth century, which led to the formation of “Kurdish national identity” in Iraq, Iran and Turkey.

   The development of the evolving Kurdish national identity in Iraq, Turkey and Iran was a process of ethnic-identity formation mainly encouraged by ethnic-loyalties. Although, Natali (2005) does not engage in the discussion and in the explanation of method of loyalties that contributed to the development of Kurdish national identity, her work is reference to the formation of ‘ethnic-loyalties’ in Kurdistan. The formation of ethnic-loyalties through the development of Kurdish national identity encouraged by practices of ‘Kurdaityi’ (Natali 2005) have been in progress since late 1800s in connection with the development of Agha-Sheikhly order and new classes of Kurdish intellectuals which have made the institution of modern party-politics possible in Kurdistan (Natali 2005; Vali 2003). 

   This emergence of modern practices of politics allowed departure from the traditional style of conducting politics in Kurdistan society was succeeded with the support of Agha-Sheikhly and their contribution to party-politics. Natali’s preoccupation with the role these three institutions played in directing Kurdish politics of ‘Kurdaityi’  [9]  shows the practices of developing Kurdish national identity toward Kurdish statehood and the formation of ethnic-loyalties in Kurdish society.

   These practices and discourses of ethnic-loyalties begun in late 1800s, emerged very clearly in the social and political discourse of the Republic of Mahabad in Eastern Kurdistan, and they were solidified in 1970s and 1980s in Iraqi Kurdistan through the foundation of two-party system (KDP and PUK). The policies of expulsion and genocide of the Kurds were conducted by the Ba’ath regime to weaken and to amputate these ethnic-loyalties (Human Rights Watch 1993; Middle East Watch 1993; Committee on Foreign Relations 1991, van Bruinessen 1994ab). These loyalties have helped Kurdish and Kurdistan society to survive and played a positive role in the process of Kurdish nation-building project. Natali (2005) puts into perspective the historical development and the move toward the emergence of the Kurdish national identity with special focus on Iraqi Kurdistan  [10] . The depth of Natali’s work is appreciated, because no other academic has so meticulously researched the development of Kurdish national identity in the last century in such comprehensive way. 

   Ethnic loyalties are organized around ‘loyalty to ethnic identity’, which is defined through language, culture, and shared historical experience. Its principle claim is that Kurds are not Arabs, Persians or Turks; rather they have their own language, culture and social organization. The ethnic identity approach searches for clues by which Kurds could be distinguished from their neighbours, and the ethnic politics that mobilized ethnic identity has called for ‘ethnic loyalty’ among the Kurds (Hassanpour 2003).

   Van Bruinessen argues that, similar to ‘primordial loyalties’, ‘ethnic loyalties’ have been a source of both unity and disunity among the Kurds. Kurdish ethnic loyalties focus on loyalty to ethnic identity that is mainly expressed through practices of linguistic, cultural, and shared historical experience to distinguish Kurds from their neighbours. Thus, ethnic loyalty framework questions locality, differences in dialect, slight difference in cultural practices, and being from one part of Kurdistan; it questions all elements of disunity that create restrictions the spaces of unity. He points out that “competing ethnic loyalties” among ‘different Kurdish localities and dialects even with strong sense of nationalism among them’ (1994) have been sources of division. 

   He misinterprets ethnicity, which is more unifying and less concerned with local differences, because practices of localities and dialects are characteristics of primordial- loyalties rather than ethnic-loyalties. Ethnic-loyalties to Kurdish identity are broad system of allegiances, which do not take into account locality as a dividing space. For example, ‘Kurd’ is an ethnicity that speakers of Kurdish dialects of Gorani, Sorani, Kurmanji, Zaza identify themselves by, van Bruinessen (2000b) has made this argument. It is unclear as to why he does not make this clear in the analysis of system of loyalties in Kurdistan. The speaker of major dialects of Kurdish language considers themselves Kurdish, which is an ethnic category. Then, loyalties to local differences that van Bruinessen points out are considered primordial rather than ethnic. It is more precise to consider the competing loyalties that van Bruinessen points out: competing primordial loyalties/competing local loyalties, not “competing ethnic loyalties” (van Bruinessen 1998).

   These differences are not differences of ethnicity; they are differences of locality, which are primordial. Differences of locality have been deployed by Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq to distort cohesion and unity in Kurdistan society. The politics of ‘ethnic loyalty’ embedded in the politics of ethnic identity have both constrained and helped the construction of civic-loyalty. A reading of Kurdish ethnic loyalty to ethnic identity would formulate its framework as the difference in language, cultural practice and historical experience to establish the argument for Kurdish ethnic-identity. Ethnic identity focuses attention on linguistic differences to argue that Kurdish distinct ethnic identity and language are the determining criteria of Kurdish ethnic identity not ethnic nationalism. Kurdish ethnic identity is undeniable, but its mobilization along narrow political goals to suppress others generates ‘ethnic nationalism’.

   A loose understanding of ethnicity and ‘nation’ may seriously hinder civil society, and civic loyalty, because ethnicity is group specific and it may be useful for an explanation of ethnic identity and ethnic loyalty, but it is burdensome to inclusive approach of national identity, civil society and civic loyalty. Ethnic loyalties are categories of allegiances to an ethnic group and ethnic identity. These loyalties are grounded in ethnic identity, and it may call for relying on ethnic loyalties which are generated through belonging to a specific linguistic group, cultural practices, shared historical experience and a range of ethnic discourse that feed construction and maintenance of loyalty to ethnic identity. 

   Practices of ethnic loyalty may be justified in cases of ethnic-cleansing and genocide of a specific ethnic group to maintain survival. Specifically, practices and discourses of ethnic loyalties contribute to the survival of Kurds. However, excessive uses of ethnic loyalties may fracture the construction of ‘Kurdish national identity’ (Natali 2005) and delay the foundation of a Kurdish state on grounds of civic loyalties. The important aspect of this transformation has been that the institution of ‘party-politics’ and the new class of intellectuals together begun to operate on principles of ‘ethnic loyalties’ to Kurdish identity led by a middle class intellectuals, politicians and party-politics in the center, a moderate class of Agha-Sheikhly order, gradually weakened primordial loyalties (van Bruinessen 1992; Vali 2003; Stansfield 2003; Natali 2005).

4.Transformation and Spatiality 

A series of events in Southern Kurdistan (Iraqi Kurdistan), since 1970s led to the transformation of loyalties and the opening of regional space to ethnic-loyalties. The first was the negotiations between Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Ba’ath regime and its breakdown; the second was a refugee crisis of over a million Kurds in 1974. The third was the social engineering/reconstitution, Arabization and the Anfal of Iraqi Kurdistan (Talabany 2002; Human Rights Watch 1993; Middle East Watch 1993; Committee on Foreign Relations 1991, van Bruinessen 1994ab). These three major events opened the region to Kurdish representatives in such way that was highly progressive in the history of Kurdistan. Thus, while they regionalized the Kurdish National Question, these events strengthened the emergence of solid ethnic-loyalty which had been in the process of formation since nineteen century. 

   In spring 1974, political negotiations for autonomy between the Ba’ath government and Kurdish movement led by KDP ended unsuccessfully (McDowell 2004). In 1975, KDP ended armed struggle after the Algeria Accord was signed by Muhammad Reza, the Shah of Iran, and Saddam Hussein, the vice president of Ahmad Hasan Al-Baker, the president of Iraq. Iran betrayed the Kurdish movement for concessions form the Iraqi government to the uses of water way rights in Shat’u Al-Arab waterway (Dilip 2003). 

   After the agreement, Iran halted support for General Mustafa Barzani, and General Barzani announced the dissolution KDP by calling on its members to lay-down arms and stop political activities in spring 1975 until further notice. The KDP failure resulted nearly in a million Kurdish refugees to flee to Iran in 1974-75. Days after the dissolution of KDP, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was founded on 1, June 1975 and announced its objective: ‘Kurdish right to self-determination’ under the Rights of Nations to independence. The socio-economic life of Kurdish people were tampered with, and governed by most repressing, peripheralizing, exploiting techniques denied progress and development. From 1970 to 1973 there emerged new signs of life in Kurdistan socio-economy. This short period of political stability helped developing Kurdish and Kurdistan socio-economic institutions/organizations, but the progress was disrupted again in 1974. 

   From 1975 to 1986, political activities for Kurdish right to self-determination began under the leadership of PUK led by Jalal Talabani in partnership and the intellectual support of Ibrahim Ahmad, shortly after the fall of KDP Kurdish national movement in spring 1975. KDP reorganized the party and re-emerged in 1976 to continue the fight for Kurdish autonomy. PUK and KDP were the two major Kurdish political parties that represented Kurds of Southern Kurdistan, but KDP remained a marginal force until 1992. 

   The Ba’ath regime did not make concessions to Kurdish right to self-determination. In this period, no political progress was made towards a solution to the Kurdish National Question. In 1979 Iran-Iraq war began, it devastated the region. The Ba’ath regime expelled thousands of Feyli Kurds to Iran and denied them access to their properties. During this period, Kurdistan under Ba’ath control went under forcible social, economic and political reconstitution  [11]  begun in 1975.

   The first opportunity that the Ba’ath regime could find, the regime began to Arabize the province of Kirkuk, the city of Kirkuk and all the oil rich regions of Kurdistan. In 1930s oil was found in Kirkuk and its surrounding regions, thereafter the Arabization and the demographic distortion of Kurdistan region started (Talabany 2002). The Ba’ath regime destroyed thousands of villages near Turkish and Iranian borders and deported their population into camps near city centers. These camps were named ‘collective, modern town’ by the Ba’ath regime; but Kurds rightly named these camps ‘ordugai zore mlê’, its English translation/interpretation is: ‘concentration camp’.

   This distorting reconstitution programme began in 1975 and continued beyond 1986, which later turned into Anfal: genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Kurds (Human Rights Watch 1993; Middle East Watch 1993; Committee on Foreign Relations 1991, van Bruinessen 1994ab). During this period, the social, political and economic life in Kurdistan were sabotaged so severely that seriously hurt and destroyed the social fabric of Kurdish and Kurdistan society; a social fabric that cohesion standing for decades and was in the process of development. The second massive devastation brought by Iran-Iraq war. The war demoralized passion and love for life, the war killed hundreds of thousands, and destroyed infrastructure both in Kurdistan and the region. 

   The period 1986-1991 clear acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing, deportation, expulsion and mass exodus of the Kurds under the control of the Ba’ath regime. From 1986 to 1989 Anfal Campaign genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass exodus in 1991 of the Kurds took place (Salih 2002; Ahmad and Gunter 2002). This devastation was on larger scale than ever before, because hundreds of thousands were killed, millions were displaced. It led to expulsion, deportations of millions of Kurds under Iraqi control, and the evacuation of vast Kurdish region including the destruction of about 4000 villages and hundreds of townships (Committee on Foreign Relation 1991). 

   This period has been the most difficult period in Kurdish and Kurdistan history. It was a point in which a clear ‘historical break’ began that put an end to distorted knowledge of social, political and economic life of Kurdish and Kurdistan. This distortion had seriously hindered accurate knowledge, the development and the progress of Kurdish and Kurdistan society for a long time. The social and political practices of ethnic loyalties received salutation from the majority of the Kurdish people. The loyalties expressed to Kurdish ethnicity kept the endurance of Kurdish identity and process of reconciliation after a long period of war and instability in Kurdistan. Thus, ethnic loyalties were necessary internally among the Kurds for coping with the genocide and political mobilizations for Kurdish right to statehood.

1.5. Civic Loyalties

Civic-loyalties are modern forms of allegiances in Kurdistan. Three main factors have contributed to the emergence of civic-loyalties in Kurdistan. The first is party-politics, second is Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), and the third is international relations. Its practice and formulation have recently emerged in Iraqi Kurdistan with the foundation of Kurdistan Regional Government in 1992. The election of KRG opened a formal international space for international relations (Stansfield 2003). 

   KRG is a coalition government mainly composed of PUK and KDP, in this government minority groups are represented. These loyalties have been solidified among a class of Kurdish intellectuals who worked hard for foundation of a Kurdish state. Social solidarity in this system of loyalty is organic. Civic-loyalties are loyalties to democratic principles, elected government, and institutions of civil society. These loyalties are developed and practiced in partnership with institutions of family, community, locality, religious institutions, educational and government institutions.

   Civic-loyalties are different from their predecessor forms of allegiance, because formal institutions of the state and civil society organization play central role in the management, health, wealth, security, and governance of the Kurdish population. These loyalties to the sovereign and its government (KRG) are complex and organic. They depend on practices of membership in civil institutions and the understanding of practices of formal roles of governance, customs and norms of Kurdish society. Hence civic-loyalties are complex system of loyalties, they are not loyalties to legal codes and constitutions the ways a robot follows a designed program to follow the rules to given it for the operation of specific activities.

   Gareth Stansfield  [12]  (2003) mainly focuses on the role of party-politics in Iraqi Kurdistan, the emergence of democracy and Kurdish Regional Government (Anderson and Stansfield 2004). Party-politics is a third institution that has cut across both ‘Agha’ and ‘Sheikh’ institutions. Party-politics has recruited from different classes and groups in Kurdish and Kurdistan society. It has gathered an amalgamation of Aghas, Sheikhs, upper class, the middle and farmers of Kurdish and Kurdistan society within specific political programmes to promote civil society and civic loyalties (Vali 2003; Natali 2005). Party politics has preformed a broader function of power than Agha and Sheikhly (van Bruinessen 1992, 2000a) institutions, and promoted ethnic and civic loyalties. The functioning objective by which party-politics has been founded in Kurdistan has been to defend the right of the Kurds in peaceful and legal manner. No discourse or political programme can be found belonging to any specific Kurdish political party that plans the invasion of Kurdish neighbours. 

   Stansfield’s approach is excellent, because it is progressive and developmental. It has bypassed ‘primordialist’ and nationalist approaches which are often used in the interpretation of Kurdish society and Kurdish political struggle for independence. He presents evidence that indirectly point to that fact that primordialist accounts are no longer sufficient for reading Kurdish and Kurdistan society. The evidence that he asserts the emergence of a formal ‘civic system’ in Kurdistan that is manifested in KRG’s International Relations. This formal ‘civic system’ is compatible with the ‘civic lifeworld’ that functions on principles of civic loyalties. 

   These developments in civic organization/institutions of party-politics and intellectual classes of Kurdish and Kurdistan society have developed ‘habitus’, ‘lifeworld’ of Kurdish and Kurdistan society toward the establishment of modern state of government in Kurdistan. This transformation has helped the establishment of national identity and ethnic loyalty toward civic loyalty and the foundation of Kurdish statehood. To accomplish his thesis, Stansfield adds international relations to government building that holds a geopolitical location (O’ Tatual 2006), and the role of ‘economy’ (Pusey 2003) in Kurdish state building.

   Neither left wing nor right wing political organization has been extremists in practices of their ideological programs. Hardliner and extremist political organizations do not flourish or survive long in Kurdish society. The middle class intellectuals, intelligentsia, and Agha-Sheikhly order have contributed significantly to the leadership of party-politics in Kurdish society, the working class and farmers have been the backbone and the grassroots of these political organizations. 

   The Agha-Sheikhly order remained predominant institution until latter part of the twentieth century a strong middle class emerged. In 1970s through 1980s, a wave of modernizing, secularizing political ideas and practises emerged that posed challenges to primordial practices of Agha-Sheikhly order. The middle class and the descendants of other modernized nobility, religious groups, merchants and educated classes moved to the center of Kurdish and Kurdistan society. The foundation of the Kurdish de-facto state opened new spaces and mechanisms of progress toward civic loyalties.

   In 1992, the election of Kurdish parliament facilitated discursive practices of formal institutions of government, helped the emergence of civic loyalties, and the foundation of Kurdish Regional Government. For the first time, Kurdistan population and Kurdistan citizens showed loyalty to the state of government, to Kurdish sovereign body, to an institutionalized social, political and economic apparatus of Kurdistan Regional Government that has taken responsibility to manage and govern the health, wealth and the security of Kurdistan population and Kurdistan citizens.

1.6. Transformation and Spatiality

The transformation to ‘civic loyalties’ opened the international space Kurdistan. In 1991, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and France approved Safe-haven and no-fly zone north of 36 parallel in Iraq, which covered most of Southern Kurdistan to protect the Kurds (Adelmans 2001; Ofteringer and Backer 1994). In 1992 Southern Kurds elected their first democratic parliament represented by mainly PUK and KDP and other smaller political parties. 

   The political parties have done very well in the process of reconciliation and running this coalition government NGOs and the United Nations made a positive contribution to the democratic election process. It was a very important democratic practice. For the first time in the history of Kurdish and Kurdistan society, there was a modern inspired way of conducting politics through democratic elections of KRG. 

   This included free voting, election campaigns, election ballots, and list of designated parties cleared for election and other democratic electoral practices. The United Nations development programs including a number of states helped the election process. The election was a successful democratic practice in conducting politics. But it did not take long for Saddam’s regime, the government of Turkey, the Persian-Shiite government of Iran and Syria’s Ba’ath regimes to begin their non-neighbourly practices of economic, social and political embargo on Southern Kurdistan Region (Iraqi Kurdistan). Soon after the election in Southern Kurdistan Turkey, Iran and Syria’s foreign ministers convened a meeting to discuss the status of Kurdistan Region, thereafter sabotage continued. 

   The election of Kurdish parliament led to the formation of a Kurdish Regional Government that has been ruling over Duhok, Sulaimania and Hewler (Arbil), and now its power extends to Kirkuk, parts of Mosul and Diyala provinces. Kurdish and Kurdistan society neither need change and progress in the expense of stability, modernization, transparency; nor do they need dictatorship and absolutism for the sake of stability, rather a moderate way forward is the best solution to that war-torn region. This moderate way forward can best be attained by looking towards Europe, less attention on ideology, more focus on life, liberty and security. Both PUK and KDP have supported the alleviation of KRG to a functioning government to govern Kurdistan Region and represent the Kurds internationally.

   Kurdistan Regional Government has a federal relationship with Iraqi central government since 1992, which has been re-endorsed since 2003. KRG maintains consulates or representatives it has representatives abroad  [13] . KRG has boosted bilateral ties with many public and private international actors on business, education and security issues. This precedent on quasi-state level relation with KRG may open further space for international relations with KRG which has a federal relation with Iraqi central government [14]


This paper has explained and analyzed the transformation of Kurdish and Kurdistan society to civic loyalties in relations to the indicators and to the spaces of this transformation at three interconnected spaces has been rewarding. At the local level, it has alleviated the civic engagement in politics, social issues and economic activities to better standards. It has helped the transformation of the ‘habitus’ and ‘field’, ‘system’ and ‘life-world’ of Kurdish and Kurdistan. 

   At the regional level, it has made positive influence on the regional states of the Middle East to establish quasi-state level relations with Kurdistan, and offer KRG membership in the Middle East. At the international level, it has helped Kurdistan to move towards membership in the international community through representations and legal spaces of expression. May difficult steps may remain, but Kurdistan is determined and will move forward. 

[1]  This research paper is a component of my Ph.D. project at Carleton University. Chatham House: Independent Thinking on International Affairs in the United Kingdom will host a conference on The Kurds in International Affairs on Wednesday 19 December 2007. Let us see if Chatham House policy can see that the independence of Kurdistan is in the process of materialization, let us see if Chatham House sees what we see.

[2]  It primarily focuses on Iraqi Kurdistan (Southern Kurdistan).

[3]  The following internet address is the Kurdistan Regional Government website: . Nichirvan Barzani is the current of current Kurdish Regional Government.

He is the nephew of Massud Barzani the current President of Kurdistan Region and the leader of KDP. KRG is a coalition government, mainly, between KDP and PUK. KDP has agreed to turn over the prime-ministerial post PUK, or to the next elected prime minister after two years. This period ends sometime early next year. 

[4]  Dr. Martin van Bruinessen is one of the many well respected Kurdish Studies scholars. He is the Chair of International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

[5]  I have not listed the names to avoid misunderstanding. He is an internet link which lists the KDP president, politburo, central committee and substitutes: ?do=leader (acceded 08/31/2007).

[6]  After spending nearly his entire life in service of the Kurdish movement – Kurdish right to statehood, Ahmad died in 2000. Ahmad was Jalal Talabani’s father in-law.

[7]  Stansfield (2003) has provided the names of PUK politburo, but they have not been listed here, because some members may not like to be listed. 

[8]  Dr. Denise Natali is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute for Arab and Islamic Study at the Exeter University in the United Kingdom. Currently she is teaching in Kurdistan University in the Kurdish Region of Iraq.

[9]  The politics of ‘Kurdaityi’ is a defensive project not offensive. It is in line with the principles of Human Rights. Then, it is not a nationalism that offensively expands and invades others, but it maintains and develops Kurdish identity through peaceful means. In instances that peaceful means were exhausted, ‘Kurdaityi’ had replied to the offensive groups with a measure of self-defence in accordance with the principles of Human Rights. 

[10]  ‘System, lifeworld, habitus and field’ are borrowed from Habermas and Bourdieu’s social scientific system of thought.

[11]  Many have characterized these forcible programs ‘social engineering’ of Kurdistan, but I prefer the ‘reconstitution’ because it is more social scientific concept.

[12]  Dr. Gareth Stansfield is an associate professor in the Middle East Politics and Director of Kurdish Studies at the Exeter University in the United Kingdom.

[13]  See KRG website: .

[14]  Ibid.


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