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Tuesday, November 29, 2006 November 29, 2006

Kurds' relationship to their "others"

Interview by Mohammed A. Salih and Jamal Ekhtiar

Prof. Abbas Vali, President of University of Kurdistan-Hawler, spoke to Globe on issues and concepts related to Kurdish nationalism and the current situation of Kurds. 

The Globe:  If we go back to our theoretical discussion, how do you see the role of religion in the construction of nationalism, especially given that there examples like Arab nationalism where you usually have a sort of juxtaposition between religious and nationalistic rhetoric by Arabs in a way that sometimes it would be hard to detect the borders between the two and religion is in many cases put at the service of nationalism and vice versa even? 

Prof. Vali : I think religion can render itself to nationalism very easily. We have seen it in Iran. Many would say that modern Shiitism is, in fact, a religious face of Iranian nationalism, is an assertion of Iranian national identity with religious component. If you remember under the Shah, components of Iranian nationalism were Persian language, Persian ethnicity, and Persian history. But now, the element of Persian language remains and another component added to it is Shiite religion. The manifestation of this nationalism was best seen when Iraq invaded Iran. In that respect religion could not withhold, so that in many respects even Khomeini himself mentioned the idea that we have to defend Islamic motherland. In Iran, you have seen that. Another example of this is in Palestine where Hamas is a religious organization with a religious-political ideology, but the political ideology depends on nationalism and it is used effectively. But nationalism and religion in the structure of nationalist politics have an uneasy relationship. If religion stands for anti-secularism, for instance, another example of this you see in Turkey where you have Turkish Islamism. Turkish Islamism is largely believed to be Turkish nationalism without Kamalism. They are opposed to Kamalism but they are very Turkish nationalists. So, in the context of the structure of the AKP party (the ruling Development and Justice Party), we can see this uneasy relationship between a secularist nationalism, and an Islamism. What is here fought over is secularism, which is indispensable to Kamalist ideology and is very dispensable to the Islamist ideology. 

In Iran too, after the war, again what became an issue was the question of secularism, question of the leader, democratic rights for the people and so on. 

So, I would say nationalism can adopt religion or religion can adopt nationalism, but their existence in the structure of politics, and their politics, would be an uneasy one. At least, it will continue to the point when there is an external enemy to confront. For example, in Turkey there is the idea of struggle against an over-arching, repressive and in most cases anti-democratic army which is viciously secularist. It is very secularist but it is also very authoritarian. The political establishment of the AKP is very pro-Europe. It is committed to principles of Turkish nationalism but it is against its aggressiveness. 

I think in Kurdish case, I would say that, it would be very different, because of the development of the society and the role that the nationalist or semi-nationalist political forces have taken. I think here the Kurdish Islamism, to begin with, can only emerge if it starts opposing principles of ethnic nationalism and ethnicity and so on. I would say that it would be very difficult for Kurdish political forces to accommodate Kurdish Islamism, if Kurdish Islamism opposes not only secularism but also principles of nationalism. As I hear, I do not know much about Kurdish Islamism- in fact I know very little I must admit- but from what I hear and if what I hear is correct, Kurdish Islamism is rather similar to aspects of Salafi interpretations of Islam. They are not only anti- secular, but are also very much anti-nationalism and anti all secular ideologies as such. I think if this present government is not able to deliver and is not able to meet people's demands, and if so there is a political vacuum, and if there is political vacuum for the Islamist political movement, in which case they become forces challenging the government, but also challenging the very idea of secular nationalism. The difference with Palestine is that Palestinian Islamism must necessarily have a nationalist posture, because it is fighting an external enemy. In Kurdistan situation is different. That external enemy, at present, is not visibly present. 

The Globe:  But if we look at the development of Kurdish nationalism historically, we see that some of the prominent Kurdish leaders were religious leaders like Sheikh Ubaidullah Nahri, for example, and some members of Barzani family. 

Prof. Vali:  Yes, but that is a different religion, you know that is a religion which has never turned to the guiding ideology of the movement. Yes I agree that sheikh Ubaidullah, Sheikh Saeed in Turkey, their movement had very strong religious expression, but it could not be said that really religion was the guiding ideology of their movement. They to my knowledge never used religion as systematic political force, they may used as political mobilization, I am sure maybe large number of people who went over to Sheikh Ubaidullah or with Sheikh Saeed Piran subsequently or initially to Barzani, but they were not motivated by their religious feelings and affiliations but the eminence of these fallings and affiliations turning to a systematic political and ideological force is not very strong. For instance, in a secular movement like that of the Kurdish republic in Iran in 1946, you see that there still the element of religion is very powerful. The articles in newspapers start with Quranic verses and in the speeches of some of the leaders, it is quite prominent. But then religion as a regulating ideology, as systematic ideological force, guiding politics is absent. 

The Globe:  If we look at the history of the nationalist movements in the Middle East, and in the third world, we see that most of them before coming to power and when they were fighting the so-called colonialist occupiers, they had a nature of fighting for freedom. But, when they came to power, they just turned out to oppressive parties and regimes. Their nature changed from movements fighting for freedom to movements fighting against freedom of their own people. What guarantees do you think we have today in Kurdistan that this so-called Kurdish Liberation Movement would not come to a point of confrontation with its own people? 

Prof. Vali:  If you want a political theorist answer, a political theorist's answer would be that there are no guarantees in politics, that's if you like a realistic answer. There is always strong possibility that a democratic movement when in power, may turn very oppressive. For that reason, I always emphasize that, here we must not, I repeat it, only concern ourselves with economic development, institution-building and so on and so forth. These are important and necessary, but we should also try to mobilize people, try to create a democratic political culture, try to develop and enhance public sphere, defend freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of political organizations and of opposition. One thing very important for a healthy democracy is to have effective opposition. Effective opposition can create checks and balances in politics, and also create a condition for people to express their voices. Also we should not forget the political culture and democratic mobilization. Political democratic culture is the fundamental, essential requirement of a democratic transition. To impose, if you like, a dictatorial or authoritarian political rule on a society, which has a vibrant democratic political culture, would be difficult. And, also, to have this vibrant political culture and vibrant civil society and rapidly developing democratic public sphere, means that the government's centralizing functions, centralizing authoritarian command, will always be facing their limitations in the society. Not just like people opposing them directly, but people working through cultural process and institutions in order to make the government understand that it is exceeding its power. The government can, right from now, start building foundations for this purpose, by creating a democratic legal process. Law is very important in this respect. For instance, if you want to have a healthy democratic press, you must have effective laws defending this democratic press. The law would be only democratic if the government is also subjected to it. If government creates laws and is not subjected to it, and the law is only for me, then it is no good. But if they are also subjected to those laws, then you can protect your press.

So these are matters that would make the situation difficult for the creation of an authoritarian government. Otherwise, an authoritarian government can easily come about in political uneducated societies, where the level of political culture, political consciousness is very law. 

Another aspect here which is important is the consolidation of foundations of a democratic citizenship. It is true that we are not a sovereign state, we are still citizens of the state of Iraq, but we all know that in everything but in name this government is acting as an independent government. And the relationship between the individual and government is regulated on a basis which is very similar to the relationship between individual and sovereign state. 

So, we effectively have a citizenship, because we also have a constitutional law. Theoretically, somebody may dispute that. 

So, effectively there is a democratic citizenship and we effectively can use this democratic citizenship as a democratic means in our relationship with the government. One thing, I want to emphasize here, is that government itself is a democratizing force in certain aspects. In my opinion, from what I see in this society in certain ways, government is actually a democratizing force. But this is a very very traditional society. The traditions are very strong, and insofar as I see these traditions are acting as a barrier against change, anti-democratic barriers. The government is trying hard to introduce change without violating these traditions. So, when we talk about democratic education of the public, it is not just a democratic education which is concerned with dealing with government, but this is also a democratic education and consciousness and attitude and conduct which will be trying to effectively reformulate social relations and conventions. 

The Globe:  An important criterion of how democratic the government here can be is its treatment of minorities. In your opinion how has been the treatment of minorities by government, given that the issue of minorities is very important for Kurds? After all, we have been always, as Kurds, complaining that in the four states that we are living in; we have been treated very badly. So it is principally important how we treat minorities here. 

Prof. Vali:  From what I hear and from what I read, I must say that it has been very good, both in the legal-juridical framework and I terms of conduct of the government and of the people towards religious and ethnic minorities. I think the relationship has been good. It is widely considered of being very positive, very cooperative, very helpful and not repressive. For example, about Yazidis, both head of the regional government and president of the region sent messages of congratulations for their festival recently. And that's not all; I heard that there has been substantial promise devoted to redevelopment of Yazidi minority. 

In the context of present day Middle East, what is happening here in relation to religious and ethnic minorities, Kurdistan is very positive.

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