The Kurdish Question: What Is Owed To The State In A Post-State World?



Refugees from Mosul at the Syrian border, remaking the region. Image from


With the region in flux, what is owed to the Kurds, and what is owed to the idea of the state?

It needs to be clear from the outset that this post has no answers, only questions. But they are the questions we need to be asking, and they are ones we’ll be trying to explore on the blog here.

Basically, it comes down to this: should Iraqi Kurds be allowed to sell alcohol? And, bigger picture, does the phrase “Iraqi Kurd” even mean anything? Should it?

Let’s back up, to a very little-remarked-upon (for obvious reasons) news story: The Iraqi government has decided that, in the midst of everything going on, they would enforce a ban on selling, importing, producing, and distributing alcohol. This despite the ostensible goal of not pressuring minorities to share the religious dictates of the majority. It seems shortsighted, and predictably, the Kurds were having none of it.

“The [Kurdistan] Region has its own parliament and will not implement this. No, it will not affect Kurdistan,” Falah Bakir, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Minister of Foreign Relations told ARA News. “[Iraq’s central government] should focus on more important matters.”

Safeen Dizayee, a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) spokesperson, echoed Bakir’s remarks. He told ARA News explicitly that the ban would not affect Kurdistan.

“It’s a matter of personal freedoms, whether people want to drink or not drink. If you ban it, people will want it more, but if it’s allowed it will be normal,” Xelil Hassan, a 50-year-old Kurdish man from Erbil, said.

This seems like a minor thing, to be sure, but it also isn’t. For one thing, it is about fundamental freedoms, and I consider the freedom to have a drink after a stressful day of living in Iraq to be one of them. But more to the point, it’s a question of who runs Kurdistan?

It’s pretty clear, and has been for 20 years: the Kurds do. Everyone knows it, an everyone understands that. They can wrist-flick away dictates from distant Baghdad. But there is still a fiction that they live in an Autonmous Zone, and we maintain the idea that they are part of the state of Iraq. We pay deference to that fiction.

This fiction is becoming increasingly strained with the dissolution of Syria and the battle for Mosul. Syrian Kurds have carved out a zone of independence, Rojava, a “federal democratic system” in the north, near the Turkish border.

They watch for Asad. They watch for ISIS. They watch for Turkey. They worry about betrayal by the US, as well they should. Because the US is officially still clinging to the fiction that there are states, and it the state, those lines drawn up 100 years ago, that should have primacy.

It’s sort of a hard thing to argue. When ISIS ran through the Iraqi army and was set to eliminate the Yazidis, it was the Kurds who not only rescued them, but brought them in as refugees. Now Rojava is taking in thousands of refugees from Mosul, fleeing the carnage. They aren’t recognized as a true political entity, but are dealing with the human crisis caused in part by the very states to which they are ostensibly yoked.

So that’s the big question: which states do we understand to be real? Why is it that an Iraqi state conjured up by Gertrude Bell, one whose ethnic and sectarian mix has led to so much chaos and bloodshed and human misery, be the default setting? Why is anything that deviates from that, well, deviant?

And what of Syria? Its internal contradictions were mutated and heightened by the cruelty of the Asad family, and now it seems like it is impossible to put that back in the bottle. So why should it be put back, if it costs the Kurds their independence? What is Syria, and why does it have to be?

Of course, Turkey wouldn’t be happy, and Turkey at least drew their own borders: but they were drawn while suppressing their own Kurds, trying to eliminate them as a culture (something proven time and time again to be impossible). But still, even if you decide that Syria and Iraq are essentially fictions, it is pretty hard to make that same argument for Turkey. Even poor behavior as of late doesn’t negate their sovereignty, nor does it lessen their fears of an independent Kurdistan.

Like I said, there are no answers. But as the refugee crisis remakes both the Middle East and Europe, we have to ask these questions: what even is the nation state? In Iraq and Syria (and Yemen), is it truly a fiction? And if so, is it actually a useful one? And if it is useful, if it screws over the Kurds, is it a moral one?

As always, any thoughts are welcome in the comments. This is a huge, perhaps overwhelming issue, and not something that can be handled in all its complexity on one, or even 100 posts (just think of how this line of reasoning might apply to, say, Kashimir, and recognize the difficulty of either argument).

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