Kurds in Syria and the Old Concept of “Good Kurds” and “Bad Kurds”

republished here with the permission of the author

Kurds in Syria and the Old Concept of “Good Kurds” and “Bad Kurds”
Dr Janroj Keles

My Critique of the Henry Jackson Society’s Report on “Unity or PYD Power Play?: Syrian Kurdish Dynamics After the Erbil Agreement

Compared to the Kurds in Kurdistan regions of Turkey and Iraq, the Kurds in Syria have been invisible in political and public spheres in the Middle East for decades. They have been described as “forgotten people” or “the silenced Kurds” in a few academic works and articles. Indeed they are the largest ethnic group after the Arabs in Syria and are the potential catalyst for a possible pluralistic and democratic process in Syria.

They have suffered for decades under the policies of the Arab imagined political community and their ethnic identity and existence have been denied by “Syrian Arab Republic”. They have been subjected to ethnic discrimination, political prosecution, displaced as part of Syrian government’s Arabization policies. After stripping of Syrian citizenship from 20 percent of Syria’s Kurdish population in 1960 [sic], many Kurds were classified as the Ajanib (foreigners) and maktoumeen (meaning “hidden” or ” muted”) and become refugees in their own country for decades before and during the Bath regime. However since the Kurdish Serhildan (Uprising) in 2004 in Kurdish populated Qamishli and so called “Syrian Revolution” in 2011, the “forgotten people” have been receiving increasing attention from the international communities and also considerable attention from journalists, political analysts and the Middle East “experts” who have been publishing some interesting reports and articles on the Kurds in Syria. But some of these reports and articles are problematical because they look the Kurds in Syria from the perspectives of dominant nationalistic discourses in the region e.g. Turkish and Arab nationalism and/or from the perspective of the “common sense” of global powers. In this sense a recently published report[1] entitled “Unity or PYD Power Play?: Syrian Kurdish Dynamics After the Erbil Agreement” needs to be read critically because it is biased, one-sided and political and makes unsubstantial claims about the Kurds in Syria and about Kurdish political organisations in the region. Moreover it attempts to justify and legitimize the hostile intention of Turkish policies toward Kurds in Turkey and Syria in criminalizing and delegitimizing Kurdish political parties. The authors use an old concept of “good Kurds” and “bad Kurds” without any analytic skill and academic credibility and knowledge of multi-connected, multi-referential relationships among Kurdish organisations, parties and networks and between Kurdish and Syrian groups, parties and people.

First of all I would emphasize that I agree with some issues highlighted in conclusion in particular issues related to the KNC and PYD that they should find a rational ways to respect their political differences and share power for a pluralistic and democratic process in the Kurdish populated region. I also firmly agree with the authors that both KNC and PYD should be integrated into the political establishment in the region. However I think the report is also problematic in various respects. Firstly the report divides the Kurdish political groups sharply into “good Kurds” and “bad Kurds”. This old concept has been used by the regional countries and also by USA in accordance to their “national interests” and at the expense of subordinated Kurds. This report repeats the same, old and trivial concept. The “bad Kurds” who are “the militant”(p6),” terrorist” (p11), “radicals in the PKK linked Democratic Union Party (PYD)” (p5), “the Turkish PKK” (p17) and the “good Kurds” who are “moderate Kurds”. It is unclear what the characteristic of “moderate Kurds” (p6) are and how they are qualified as being “good Kurds” and who decides on which criteria that certain groups are “moderate” and others “radical” and therefore need to be isolated (p24). There is a discourse throughout this report based on creating a “folk devil”, a political group who is labeled as a threat. It does not matter for me whether this otherized group is PYD or any other political group. My concern is that a particular group which has considerable popular support in Kurdistan region in Syria is labeled and its legitimacy questioned because it has ideological and political links with the PKK.

Secondly I also criticize the report for ignoring multi-connected, multi-referential relationships among Kurdish organizations, parties and networks and between Kurdish and Syrian groups, parties and people as well as between Kurdish leaders, parties and Turkish government. These multi-connected, multi-referential relationships influence the political position of differently positioned groups, parties and even governments. Let me clarify this with an example. On his way back from a visit to Germany, the Turkish Prime minster Mr Erdogan responded to a question about the “threat” of PYD in Syria and to Turkey as follows: ‘…Barzani… even tried to explain that PYD is not like PKK’ (Barzani … hatta PYD’nin PKK olmadığını anlatmaya çalıştı bize (Hurriyet, 02 November 2012). This statement shows clearly that President of Kurdistan Regional Government, Mr. Barzani mediates between PYD and Turkey in an indirect way and attempts to include PYD into the political field in the region. So the division between “bad Kurds “ and “good Kurds” are not as clearly delineated, because of their multiple connection, attachment, loyalties etc. Therefore I find the language used in this report is based on the deictic juxtaposition and distance rhetoric which attempt to show the “good Kurds” as “moderate” and “bad Kurds” as “threat”. I think that there are no such sharp boundaries in the region. The political positions of parties and groups in the Kurdish populated region and in Syria are constantly changeable due to local, regional and international conditions, search of security within an instable region and hunger for power.

My third reservation about this report is that the accusation of PYD working with Assad regime has been mentioned in this and other reports without any reliable evidence. Instead there is a reliance on suspicions as in the following sentence: “Nevertheless, the fact that the regime ceded such large swaths of territory to the PYD without a struggle raises suspicions that this was a tactical move designed to strengthen the PYD in order to enervate Turkey, which views any build-up of a PKK apparatus in northern Syria as a direct national security threat” (p11). The only supporting statement for this claim highlighted in the report is that “analysts and scholars have speculated as to whether or not the Assad regime withdrew independently from Kurdish areas, or whether it did so in direct collaboration with the PYD” (p11), however there is not any reference to those “analysts and scholars”. Some Kurdish groups I talked to, see such claims made in Turkish and Arab sources as a “conspiracy theory” to delegitimize the political production and position of a certain powerful Kurdish political group within Syria and beyond, in particular on the international level. The report repeats the same “conspiracy theory” without providing any reliable evidence to its readers. The Christian and Druze communities in Syria have been blamed by the so called “Free Syrian Army” in a similar way for working with the regime. I have to emphasize that I do not have any evidence for or against the truth of this claim. I assume that only after the fall of the regime we will know this.

The authors provide space for such accusations made by Syrian-Arabs and highlight that there is a “frustration and anger at the Kurds for not sufficiently participating in our uprising” (p15). However there is no statement of some Kurdish groups who are for a “peaceful transition from dictatorial regime to a democratic and pluralistic system”. There are clearly two different positions. The first one (mainly Sunni-Arabs) believe that Assad regime can be changed by armed struggle, the other one (mainly held by minority groups including Kurds, Christians, Armenians, Assyrians and Druze) who distrust the Muslim brotherhood and nationalists and prefer to seek a peaceful rather than militant solution, they are scared both of the regime and also of the Islamist opposition.

The report goes further: “The KNC failed to reach an agreement with the SNC, as was demonstrated in the July Istanbul meeting, and the PYD refused to even attend”. However the Kurds I spoke to blame the SNC for blocking the Kurdish active participation in “revolution” because SNC insists to continue the policies of Baath regime in the way in which SNC has reject the Kurdish demands for constitutional recognition of Kurdish ethnic group and their political representation through autonomy or federalism, secularist, pluralistic and democratic Syria. The Kurds from Kurdistan region in Syria I have connection with, see SNC as “still an Arab nationalist organization with strong tendencies of Arab Islamists” which does not recognize the ethnic and religious plurality of the country’s population.

I am really disappointed to see that “intellectual and moral leadership” in the political reproduction of the hegemonic form of Turkish and/or Arab nationalism over subordinated Kurdish people are legitimized through Henry Jackson Society.

25.10.2012, London

Kurdish rights and constitutional exclusion in Syria

Kurdish rights and constitutional exclusion in Syria
by Christian Sinclair

In my first column, I’m going to recap a talk I gave last weekend in Istanbul at a conference called “On the Way to a New Constitution.”

What events of Syrian history have helped contribute to the brutal repression of that country’s Kurdish population? As the country’s largest ethnic minority, the Kurds in Syria make up approximately 10% of the country’s population and have long been denied the most basic expressions of identity in a ruthless push by the state to promote Arab nationalism and preserve its territorial integrity.  If we look at the evolution of Syria’s constitutions we may begin to understand the situation and how it has come to pass that Kurdish rights have been trampled on so thoroughly. Then, maybe, we can understand Kurdish calls for recognition under a new, post-Assad, post-Ba’ath constitution and ask what this long repressed group may need to feel like equal partners in a new Syria.

Since Syria’s separation from the Ottoman Empire, the country has experienced many constitutions, constitutional reforms, and constitutional setbacks. The nation’s 1920 constitution (its first) called the Syrian government an Arab government. This came on the heels of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the new nation became the “Arab Kingdom of Syria” under King Faisal, who announced that his would be an Arab government “based on justice and equality for all Arabs regardless of religion.” His government only lasted four months before the French took control.

In 1927 French Mandate Authorities set up a Constituent Assembly to begin drafting a new constitution. In the summer of 1928 a Kurdish delegation to the Constituent Assembly petitioned for political, cultural, and linguistic rights, including the use of Kurdish as a medium for teaching. However, worried about what was happening in neighboring countries and fearing nationalist aspirations, the French Mandate Authorities declined the Kurdish request.

Syria gained complete independence in 1946 and not too long after a major regional development would affect the long-term evolution of Syria’s many constitutions: the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. In Syria’s constitution of 1950 the addition of an article stating that Syria is “a part of the Arab nation” was added for the first time. The can be seen as a direct, defensive response to the formation of the state of Israel.

In an article from the Middle East Journal in 1951, Majid Khadduri discusses the question of Syrian unity as an additional factor that influenced Syria’s constitutional evolution. The French had parceled up “Greater Syria” doling out chunks of land to neighboring countries and establishing Lebanon as an independent entity. This created a Syrian version of Turkey’s “Sèvres Syndrome.”

Part of preamble to 1950 Constitution

Khadduri also said that “[s]tability in government presupposes the development of constitutional traditions. Frequent changes of regime…hardly afforded an opportunity of developing the tradition of responsibility necessary for stable government.” So if the tradition of responsibility wasn’t developing, what was? A fear of territorial disintegration, rising nationalism, worries about political stability, and regional geo-political shifts outside the government’s control. In 1953 another constitution was declared which added (in Article 3) that the Syrian Republic should pursue the goal of a “United Arab Nation.” But that constitution didn’t last long and the 1950 Constitution was reinstated in 1954.

From independence and through the early 1950s, a large-scale Kurdish political movement emerged, culminating in Syria’s first Kurdish political party in 1957. Some of the demands of the movement were: constitutional recognition, Kurdish participation in the administration of the state’s affairs, Kurdish as an official language, recognition of Newroz, and, some form of administrative autonomy. These demands, however, were only seen as risks. They were viewed through the developing lens of rising Arab nationalism and a fear of territorial disintegration. The Kurds were slowly inching up the list as the young nation’s most dangerous threat.

From 1958-1961 Syria was united with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic (UAR) and it was during this time that Arab nationalism flourished. The union provided the means and opportunity to implement assimilation policies to safeguard its existence. For example, Egyptian schoolteachers were sent to Kurdish regions in Syria to replace Kurds and to oversee the Arabic-only language policies. Syria withdrew from the UAR in 1961 and announced the formation of the Syrian “Arab” Republic. The union ended but the assimilation policies continued full force, including the now infamous census in 1962 that stripped 120,000 Kurds of their Syrian citizenship.

In April 2012 Rudaw interviewed the leader of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, who said: “The Kurdish history in the pre-Ba’ath era was different from that of the Ba’ath era. Kurds are not different from other citizens in Syria. This feeling emerged under the Ba’ath, because the Ba’ath Party really pursued a discriminatory, racist, and marginalizing policy against the Kurds.” He says that Kurds were part of the political and social landscape and there were no problems prior to 1963. Perhaps there were fewer problems, but he is whitewashing a discriminatory history. When the Ba`ath party came to power in 1963 it simply continued the existing policies of denying Kurdish identity.

In 1964 a temporary constitution stated in Article One that: “Syria is part of the Arab homeland. And the people of the Syrian Arab region are a part of the Arab nation. They work and struggle to achieve the Arab nation’s comprehensive unity.” Article 22 offered rights and freedoms only “under the condition of not endangering the national security” or “Arab unity.” This was a continuation of the constitutional exclusion and criminalization of non-Arab identities.

Another temporary constitution was announced in 1969, which included an article stating: “The educational system aims at upbringing an Arab nationalist socialist generation.” This reflected policies already in place. The Kurdish language had already been banned in public and in education. In 1967 school geography texts removed any mention of the Kurds. Yet other non-Arab minorities (Armenians and Assyrians in particular) had their own schools and clubs where their languages were taught. Why? They were not seen as a threat to the Arab nation.

Syria’s 1973 (and current) constitution is meaningless as the country’s penal codes supplant constitutional principles. These penal codes are used to prosecute Kurdish activists, politicians, and students, as Kurds are afforded no constitutional protections. They are charged with: “attempting to sever part of the Syrian territory to annex it to a foreign state” (Article 267); “involvement in cells seeking to weaken nationalist consciousness and to stir up racial sectarian strife” (Article 285); and, “involvement in an unauthorized organizations” (Article 288).

What do Kurds in Syria want today? Well, what have the Kurds been asking for since the French Mandate? Mother-tongue education in Kurdish, political freedoms, and de-criminalization of Kurdish identity through constitutional recognition. Demands have not changed much over time. What then needs to change for Kurds to achieve their long-sought-after goals? Syria needs to reconceptualize itself as a multi-ethnic, pluralistic democracy modeled on the idea of integration without assimilation and governance by the will of the people.

That notion of “the will of the people” as “the basis of the authority of the government” [Article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights] somehow got lost along the way in Syria’s history to a point where it is now “the needs of the state” functioning as the sole basis of the authority of the government. Who will form “the people” upon which the authority of a future Syrian government will rest? Does the Syrian National Council truly represent the people? With accusations of foreign influence and declarations from the SNC leadership that Kurds will not be given group rights, the answer is no. The SNC or any representative body requires a willingness to integrate rather than exclude in whole or in part. At some point a new constitutional will be drafted. However, a new constitution will not resolve the current issues without a total overhaul of the country’s political structures and a reframing of the national mindset.

(follow Christian Sinclair on Twitter: @sinclair_c)

The role of technology and the Internet in facilitating Kurdish nationalism

The following post was submitted by a reader, ZH.

‘New media technologies’ have facilitated and advanced Kurdish unification and nationalism and will continue to do so by reducing barriers such as time and space. The Internet has connected the Kurdish diaspora to the land and people still occupying the Kurdish territories. This argument is built on the idea that people can share their common sense of identity and feelings of attachment without governmental censorship. The use of digital broadcasting satellite (DBS) and now the Internet provide nations with the tools to relay information, images, ideas, and a sense of identity across borders. This brief article discusses the role of Kurdish satellite television and the Internet in shaping the Kurdish diaspora and Kurdish nationalism. The objective is to determine the impact of satellite television and the Internet in shaping the past and the future of Kurdish nationalism and in particular the Kurdish diaspora in the West. Specifically, the article examines the degree to which technology and the Internet have facilitated modern Kurdish nationalism in the Middle East and across the diaspora.

The Kurdish diaspora is relatively new to the West as they are recruits of the 1960s’ labor force to Europe and products of the several wars that erupted in the last quarter of the twentieth century [1]. Figures for the Kurdish diaspora are difficult to ascertain, but the Institut kurde de Paris estimates that the Kurdish diaspora numbers over one million [2]. As a consequence of poor organization and lack of financial resources, the Kurdish diaspora was weak and ineffectual in its political activism in the West and the Middle East. This changed in 1995 with the launching of the first Kurdish satellite television station, MED-TV, broadcast out of London, UK. The channel was central in articulating Kurdish grievances against Turkey and Iraq and was protected from the censorship against the Kurdish language. The objective of the channel was to broadcast programming in Kurdish languages and to assert the Kurdish identity. For example, the channel’s logo, which was omnipresent during programming, was colored in red, yellow, and green; representing the colors of the Kurdish flag. Moreover, the channel’s daily opening began with the singing of the Kurdish national anthem [3].

MED-TV was closed a short four years after opening due to its alleged connections to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the terrorist Kurdish group in Turkey. However, Medya TV in France immediately succeeded it. Then between 1999 and 2000 Kurdistan TV and Kurdsat were launched out of the Kurdish region of Iraq. This demonstrated that governments (Turkey and Iraq in particular) were incapable of regulating Kurdish nationalism. Television would come to constitute a very important tool for advancing Kurdish nationalism. Indeed, since the launch of MED-TV, there have emerged several other Kurdish satellite channels from Iraq, Iran, and Europe (Medya TV in France and Roj TV in Denmark). Such developments have led academics to argue that technologies such as satellite television and the Internet have facilitated and contributed to the development of the Kurdish identity [4]. Jaffer Sheyholislami, for example, concludes that Kurdistan TV (from the Kurdish region of Iraqi) constructs and reproduces a “cross-border Kurdish identity…with its own language and signs[5].” These satellite channels reach the Kurdish diaspora in the West and provide it with information related to Kurdish issues. More importantly, however, it is a tool used to preserve and advance the Kurdish identity.

Kurdish use of the Internet is also noteworthy. Researchers argue that the Kurds have used the Internet, e-mail and social networking sites, for organizing protests, meetings, and ‘nationalist projects [6].’ Moreover, the Internet provides the Kurds with a forum wherein they can discuss issues and subjects that are otherwise banned. This is particularly true of the Kurds from Turkey who use the Internet to disseminate banned publications and to make them available to the Kurds in Turkey [7]. Facebook, for example, is popular for creating groups that discuss the Kurdish language, culture, and history. Twitter has also become a popular destination for expressing Kurdish nationalism. For example, Twitter was used to organize a campaign to highlight the oppression of Kurds in Turkey and to garner attention and support for the Kurds [8].

The use of the Internet by the Kurdish diaspora and those in the Middle East represents what Benedict Anderson has called ‘long-distance nationalism [9].’ Unfettered access to the Internet has allowed the Kurdish diaspora, and some in the Middle East to perpetuate the ‘imagined community’ that is Kurdistan. It allows disparate groups to “imagine themselves as nations” and provides a voice to those who otherwise would not have one [10]. This suggests that the Internet is important for the development of Kurdish, and indeed other, national identities given that it provides a forum where those in the diaspora can maintain their connection to those in the homeland. Essentially, the Internet has diminished the importance of time and space by offering the Kurds a sort of ‘cyber space’ wherein they can express their identity and reinforce Kurdish nationalism.

Satellite channels from the West and the Middle East have mediated Kurdish nationalism. That is, the Kurdish diaspora is no longer detached from the Kurds in the Middle East. On the contrary, the diaspora appears to be contributing to the construction of a ‘new’ Kurdish nationalism. One based on the evolving realities in the Middle East and the West. It is important to note that satellite television allows the Kurds to maintain a connection with Kurds in the Middle East and therefore acquire the belief that Kurdish nationalism is innate and natural. The Internet is also contributing to this notion. Use of the Internet allows Kurds of the diaspora and the Middle East to maintain their shared identity despite the difference in space and time.

Sources:

[1] Amir Hassanpour, “Diaspora, homeland and communication technologies,” in Karim H. Karim (ed.). The Media of Diaspora (London: Routledge, 2003), 78.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 82.
[4] Jaffer Sheyholislami, Kurdish Identity, Discourse, and New Media (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 79.
[5] Jaffer Sheyholislami, 170-172.
[6] David Romano, “Modern Communications Technology in Ethnic Nationalist Hands: The Case of the Kurds,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vo. 35, No. 1 (2002): 127-149.
[7] Jaffer Sheyholislami, 91.
[8] “#TwitterKurds takes the civil disobedience campaign online,” Kurdistan Commentary. 25 May 2011. http://kurdistancommentary.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/twitterkurds-takes-the-civil-disobedience-campaign-online.
[9] Benedict Anderson, “Long-Distance Nationalism: World Capitalism and the Rise of Identity Politics,” Centre for Asian Studies Amsterdam. The Wertheim Lecture, 1992.
[10] Jaffer Sheyholislami, 179.

SERIOUSLY, FACEBOOK?!?!?

A former Facebook employee who used to filter out offensive content has leaked the website’s secret rulebook. Aggrieved Moroccan worker, Amine Derkaoui, 21, who was paid a mere $1 an hour by oDesk – a third-party content-moderation firm used by Facebook – let the cat out of the bag when he revealed FB’s nasty secrets. See story here.

In addition to banning images of butt cracks, people sleeping with things drawn on their faces, decapitated humans, and earwax (huh?), Facebook includes as graphic content: maps of Kurdistan. Yes, maps of Kurdistan. See image below (3rd column towards the bottom–click to enlarge).

Seriously, Facebook? This is truly disgusting.